Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Belief in hell leads to heaven

Good angel bad devilReligious belief supposedly has a positive influence on ethical behavior. Religious people should not steal, kill, lie, or cheat, and therefore countries with high levels of religiosity should have lower crime rates. As it turns out, research by psychologists Azim Shariff (University of Oregon) and Mijke Rhemtulla (University of Kansas) suggests that countries do experience lower crime rates when their people have a strong belief in hell – but when they have a strong belief in heaven, crime rates actually increase.

This research seeks to hone in on why religiosity correlates with improved moral and social behavior. Previous research found that religion correlates with such positive behaviors only when its followers believe in supernatural punishment. Those who do not believe in supernatural punishment, or who believe that supernatural agents are primarily forgiving, not only do not reap this benefit of better moral behavior but actually act worse. For example, they tend to cheat on tests or cheat in order to gain money. Theoretically, this difference between the “supernatural as punishing” and the “supernatural as loving” should correspond to beliefs in heaven and hell (heaven being associated with a loving supernatural entity, and hell with a punishing one).

To test whether perceptions of heaven and hell affect ethical behavior, the researchers analyzed data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Survey, giving them a spread of 67 countries. The surveys simply asked their participants whether they believed in heaven and whether they believed in hell. The researchers then compared this to the crime rates of those 67 countries, using data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Specifically, they looked at the rates of homicide, robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, drug crime, auto theft, burglary, and human trafficking.

As expected, belief in hell predicted lower crime rates, while belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates, even after accounting for other variables such as poverty and education. In particular, belief in heaven positively correlated with assault, auto theft, drug crime, homicide, rape, and theft, whereas belief in hell negatively correlated with assaut, drug crime, homicide, kidnapping, rape, and theft. This pattern held for Africa, South America, Central America, Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand—all but the Muslim countries of Asia. In fact, of all the variables tested in this study, belief in heaven and hell were the strongest predictors of crime.

Of course, the psychologists admit that their results at most suggest correlation, not causation. However, they do believe that the link probably is indeed causal. They argue that they tried all of the obvious intermediary variables and found them inadequate to explain away the correlation, and that various previous research has already established religious beliefs as causal for social behavior. Thus, while they can't prove causation in this study, they think it's more likely than not.

Even if not causal, it’s still nonetheless interesting that belief in heaven correlates with higher crime rates, while belief in hell correlates with lower crime rates. This information may be useful to pastors, politicians, and even wardens. Want better behavior? Instill people with the fear of hell.

For more, see “Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates” in PlosONE.

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